SALT LAKE CITY (WOMENSENEWS)--Tapestry Against Polygamy is preparing for the expected media onslaught accompanying the Winter Olympics here next month. The group's members are gathering documentation that will provide important background information, they say, to journalists looking for stories about this state dominated by a single religion.
The group was founded in 1998 for women who have escaped polygamous marriages and its leaders say that the practice of multiple marriages continues here. They estimate that 30,000 families are headed by men with more than one spouse. This is true, the leaders say, even though more than a hundred years have passed since the practice was officially banned in exchange for statehood.
The group also will provide access to women throughout the state who have left polygamous communities.
"We will make ourselves available to let the public know the state of Utah has a problem, and it isn't being addressed," said the group's president, Vicky Prunty, 38. She married a Mormon while they were both students at Brigham Young University here. She subsequently left the relationship.
The group's members argue that the practice is based on the control of vulnerable and uneducated young women. To illustrate how polygamy is being practiced, the group cites news reports of a 1998 incident in which a bloodied 15-year-old called police from a gas station to explain that she had been beaten badly by her father for running away from an arranged marriage. She had become the fifteenth wife of her 32-year-old uncle. The state placed the teen-ager in a foster home.
Also visible at the Olympics will be representatives of a number of women's groups supporting polygamy, including the Women's Religious Liberties Union, an organization of polygamous wives formed in response to Tapestry Against Polygamy. Those women maintain the First Amendment protects their right as fundamentalist Mormons to practice a religion advocating plural marriage.Utah Leadership Remains Ambivalent About Polygamy
Polygamy is a defining element of Mormon belief and history. Ambivalence about the practice endures in Utah. Although the state made secular polygamy illegal in 1890, Mormon scripture--canonized in its Doctrines and Covenants--still honors spiritual polygamy, sealing polygamous unions for eternity in temple ceremonies.
Tapestry Against Polygamy's plans for the Olympics are modest compared to those of the Mormon Church. The religion requires all of its young members to serve for two years as missionaries, proselytizing in countries around the world. Now, beginning Feb. 8, the world's attention will be focused on Salt Lake City and, the church hopes, the religion that is at its core.
For the past year reporters around the world signed up to cover the Olympics have been getting invitations to write about Utah's dominant religion. The first mailing was a toy suitcase embossed with the church's 2002 logo, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. Its campaign to woo reporters intensified throughout 2001. These "story packages with multimedia elements" all focus on an aspect of Mormon doctrine, history or culture.
In a region dominated by the Mormon Church, Tapestry Against Polygamy provides safe houses for women in flight from polygamy and lobbies to eliminate the practice. Tapestry Against Polygamy also provides validation and support for women fleeing plural marriages.
Rowenna Erickson, 61, the mother of eight, left her polygamous marriage in 1994. Her older sister, the mother of six, was her husband's first wife.
"I was so brainwashed. I married him when I was 20. We thought it was the sacrifice that God wanted of us," she said. "I had to learn that I wasn't the devil when I decided to leave."Tapestry Seeks Enforcement of Laws, Prevention
In addition to providing support for women leaving these unions, the organization pushes for the state to enforce its anti-bigamy law, said its president Prunty.
"The best solution is prevention," she said. "But now there are no warning labels, no public service announcements, no state task force to address the problem."
One step: a law passed in the state legislature this year that makes it a felony to perform a polygamous wedding or coerce an underage daughter into a plural marriage.
Many outside of Utah became aware of the polygamy through Tom Green, 53, an outspoken fundamentalist Mormon living with his five young wives and 30 children in a rural area southwest of Salt Lake City. During the past decade, Green appeared on a number of national television talk shows to defend his lifestyle. Those interviews enabled David O. Leavitt, the local prosecutor and brother of Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, to move against Green. The state charged that Green married teen-agers, divorced them, and then collected their welfare payments as he continued living with them.
In May of this year he was found guilty by a Provo, Utah, jury of four counts of bigamy and sentenced to five years in prison. He was also found guilty of welfare fraud and ordered to pay $78,000 in restitution.
"How can somebody claim to be a Mormon and say that plural marriage is wicked?" Green said after the trial, noting that revered Mormon leaders Brigham Young and the prophet Joseph Smith were polygamists, as were the ancestors of the Utah governor and the man who had prosecuted him.
Diane Divoky is a journalist based in Sacramento.
For more information:
Tapestry Against Polygamy:
Women’s Religious Liberties Union:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:
Former Mormon website: